Books Australia

Class observation

3 June 2017

9:00 AM

3 June 2017

9:00 AM

A hoicked-up small boy sits astride a yoked-up heavy horse, while three sun-stained men smile at posterity. Hairy hooves press good grass, lush trees shade old ridges, and though the cover is black-and-white we feel the burden of that 1940s sun, the texture of that workwear, conjure the sleepy scents of horse and soil, hear the muted afternoon. It could be a tableau from Cider With Rosie, or an image from Mass-Observation, the social research organisation founded in 1937 to document British working-class life. The latter is apposite, because that meadow was in Worcestershire, and that bare-legged boy would become Michael Wilding, class campaigner, radical and ‘proto-post-modernist’, progenitor of ‘new writing’ in an outpost of old empire.

Growing Wild tells of Wilding’s peregrination from puritanical, proletarian English provinces to intellectual eminence in Australia. It also constitutes a mini-cultural history of the 1940s-1980s, enlightening about both England and Australia as seen by an unusually cultured and self-aware observer. The Oz adult was partly prefigured in the British boy – ‘Did I spend my whole childhood in fuming and resentment? Sometimes when I look back on it it seems so.’ He portrays 1950s suburban Worcester as an edgeland – ‘…the margin of the Marches, the border of the borderland, the second degree of peripherality.’ This sounds over-complicated, but certainly his childhood was convoluted with cross-cutting class gradations, all setting themselves apart and allotting others by accent, clothes, demeanour, occupation, politics, sexual morality, or the tidiness of their garden.

His dour, frustrated, foundryman father (who had yearned to go to university) was often at contrariety with his cheery, conservative, musical mother, ‘as if cavalier and roundhead coexisted in the same family’, and may have resented his son’s easier path to fulfilment. His father’s case fed Wilding’s later politics, but in the short term he turned snob, hating cultivating the family vegetable plot and ‘correcting’ his father’s speech. Their parlour was sometimes another ‘battlefield of the class war, fought with words rather than deeds’ – a humdrum continuation of Hudibras, Worcester writer Samuel Butler’s mock epic of the Civil War, whose hero is held back by his ‘dialect and discourse’. But not all of childhood was a combat zone, nor was all Worcester waste. Wilding looks back from the far side of the world, and falls under an enchantment of old names, while the Severn still swells with secret meanings in his dreams.


He worked as postman, farm labourer and deliveryman, but also sold a story to BBC radio at 18. Oxford offered opportunity, but he fretted even under those somnolent spires, and no amount of acceptance proved enough. He edited Isis, but felt always on sufferance, prisoner of proletarianism. He festered, devoured Jude the Obscure, refused to alter his accent, but also avoided ‘unstylish’ contemporaries of comparable class, his itchiness emblematised by his ill-cut academic gown (shades of Widmerpool’s overcoat), which he believed accentuated rather than elided his origins. Then came real escape – English lectureship at the University of Sydney.

Carrying his cargo of small resentments, he fell in with local leftists, then campaigning against censorship, drugs laws, Western foreign policy, imperialism, racism and sexism. To that coterie there were clear linkages between political constraints and cultural traditions, made more plausible because anti-communists were sponsoring high-end journals like Encounter, and Leavisites operating at the sharpest end of metapolitics. Australia looked like a universe, and Wilding expanded into its well-fed wideness, its endless evenings of fine food and thrown-open windows, horizon-altering drugs, easy sex, open-ended discussions about everything, ‘the systematic deregulation of the senses mandatory for the followers of Rimbaud and the enthusiasts for Brautigan.’ He talked and published tirelessly, striving to push boundaries, erase differences, usher in a shibboleth-less world. To him, narratives narrowed possibilities, and were in any case inapplicable to modern life – ‘Our lives, our careers, our aspirations no longer seemed expressible by the traditional narratives. Or maybe we just hoped not.’

But if lives, careers and aspirations really were no longer expressible, they could be controlled, and like many others in the perfervid 70s Wilding voiced bleak suspicions about society, producing a regular Nation Review column called ‘Wilding’s Paranoia’. He started sceptical, but ‘the extreme speculations proved to be true’, and increasingly he saw Western societies as stamping-grounds for self-aware socioeconomic forces seeking to cozen populations into buying product along with their ‘conservative, reactionary’ worldview. (The conservative reactionaries seem to have been spectacularly unsuccessful.)

One of Wilding’s manifold merits is candour about his cohort. While Sydney’s Push was ‘unrelenting in its refusal to recognise the validity of any authority, it had its well-defined pecking order’, and was ‘committed to pluralism with all the fervour of fanatical monotheists’, while litterateurs opined oxymoronically ‘there should be no “shoulds”’. The Aquarian ideas have aged badly, and some of the erstwhile avant-garde are now excoriated as ists and phobes, while the conscious uncoupling of Westerners from their heritage has led to ‘the denial, rejection, surrender of history’, a ‘de-humanising and de-politicising, or at any rate de-radicalising, agenda’, an existence ‘without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility’, ‘suspicion, disillusion, and nihilism’.

At 75, Wilding remains admirably open to ideas, an honest liberal as critical of PC idiocy as of conservative complacency, and is manifestly determined to persist ploughing his personal furrow.

He notes, boyishly defiant, ‘I thought being a writer you could say excessive things, troublesome things, even outrageous things, and get away with them. And even when I found out you couldn’t get away with them, it still seemed worth saying them.’ Indeed, it was.

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